REVIEW: Coram Boy: sprawling epic soars on the Chichester stage

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Coram Boy by Helen Edmundson, based on the novel by Jamila Gavin, Chichester Festival Theatre, until Saturday, June 15.

Coram Boy really is the most monumental piece of theatre, a truly epic, overflowing slice of 18th-century life in all its wickedness, shot through with some of its genius – a massive dollop of seemingly uncontainable existence which director Anna Ledwich just about manages to keep the lid on.

You hark back to Nicholas Nickleby a long time ago for something on quite this scale on the CFT stage. And it’s the sheer ambition of the piece that ensures you’ll forgive it the failings of its excesses, not least the massive coincidence which it conjures up simply to hold itself together in the second half.

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There are moments perhaps where the storytelling could be clearer – and there is no doubt that it’s at least 20 minutes too long. With just a little bit more, the first half alone could have been pretty much a play in itself. But if Coram Boy stumbles a little, then it’s purely because it aims so high – and it’s this which gives it its riches in a tapestry of multiple converging tales which almost defies description.

Louisa Binder as Young Alexander Ashbrook in Coram Boy at Chichester Festival Theatre - Photo Manuel HarlanLouisa Binder as Young Alexander Ashbrook in Coram Boy at Chichester Festival Theatre - Photo Manuel Harlan
Louisa Binder as Young Alexander Ashbrook in Coram Boy at Chichester Festival Theatre - Photo Manuel Harlan

Young Alexander (Louisa Binder) has got his heart set on a career in music, but his problem isn’t just that his voice is breaking. It’s that his stern father is insistent that he must learn to run the estate before he inherits it. In the meantime, in the background, the evil Otis Gardiner – played with appropriate villainy by Samuel Oatley – has come up with the foulest of money-making, schemes, pretending to be the means to a better home for the babies of struggling young mothers, offering to introduce their off-spring into the new foundling hospital. Instead he murders them and has them buried in the grounds of the estate. Slowly the stories start to come together.

But then there’s the boy that lives… the spur for the convoluted plot of the second half as villains reappear and all likelihood goes out the window. And yet still it keeps you gripped. The story moves on eight years and we explore a different kind of villainy, maybe a worse kind, the kind that hides behind apparent kindness. And all this amid the glory and redemption which music seems to offer, with Handel, no less, taking a turn.

Alexander Ashbrook is now Will Antenbring, and the transition is impressively natural, Binder – first-class in her first half performance – now handing over to the older Alex. But Rhianna Dorris remains Melissa Milcote, one of the night’s great highlights. She imbues her character with so much in such awful circumstances. Excellent too from Rebecca Hayes as Young Thomas Ledbury and from Tom Hier as the older Thomas – again a seamless transition.

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The latter parts of both halves tumble over themselves a little as they try to tell us too much far too quickly, but then this was never going to be a piece in which the scenes were going to be allowed to develop – and huge credit to designer Simon Higlett for creating a set which can be home to such extremes and so much in between. The perfect design, it allows us to go with the crazy flow.